Amen Brother! Or an indelicate silence?

Amen Brother! Or an indelicate silence?

by Jacques Abourbih

Prayer is an act of sublime surrender. People who privately serve Hashem, away from the public eye act out of pure motives. Prayers uttered in silence are not to satisfy societal pressures and their deeds can truly be for G-d alone.

According to Halakha, a minyan is required for many parts D’varim SheB’Kedusha (“Holy utterances”) of the communal prayer service, including Barechu, Kaddish, repetition of the Amidah, the Priestly Blessing, and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

Participants in  minyan answer “Amen” to prayers led publically. On a basic level, amen is one person’s affirmation that he or she believes what another has just said. It becomes a paideic  expression which has as an objective to form a knowledgeable and mature mind by affirming belief and understanding of what is said in public worship. When we recite the Shema we call upon all Israel to “Hear O’ Israel”. From a Jewish perspective it seems that it is not the eyes that are important, it is the ears.

Yet it is not so. When Billy the Bard has his Shylock say: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he is mistaken. In Devarim (Deuteronomy 11:26), we read “Re-eh Ani Ki Noten lifnekhem…” (Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse).

But here is my point. If Billy the Bard knew Hebrew, he would notice the grammatical problem in this verse. The first word re’eh (“see”) is in the singular, but the word for “before you” lifneykhem, is plural.

The 11th century scholar Bachya ibn Paquda offers this insight that I want to share with you. He explained that the commandments were placed before the entire people, hence the plural; but the choice of fulfilling the mitzvot is left to the individual’s free will. Re-eh in the singular then is clearly intended in the Torah to shift the focus from physical insight using the senses toward inward perception, which is the essence of prayer, whether as a private expression or communally in a Minyan.

According to our Rabbis there are seventy-two ways of praying. One of them is through silence.

Shabbat Shalom.


Tisha B’Av

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”

by Jacques Abourbih, Roger Nash & Scott Goldstein

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres” (137, 1-2).

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” (137, 5-7).

“Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem! Praise your G-d, O Zion!” (147, 12).

This Saturday after the end of Shabbat we start the commemoration of the great tragedy that befell us on Tisha’a B’Av. Our destiny was decreed, our Sages tell us, because of selfishness, disunity and lack of respect for each other.

Yet we are told by our Ne’viim (prophets): “From the ashes of the destroyed temple will raise an incomparably magnificent edifice. Exile will give birth to redemption. It is a tradition that our redeemer will be born on Tisha b’Av. It is a day of anticipation and hope, for “One who mourns Jerusalem will merit seeing her happiness.” From our ashes will come the Redemption for this world.

Raba said: As a reward for our father Abraham having said: I am but dust and ashes, his descendants were worthy to receive two commandments: the ashes of the [Red] Heifer, and the dust [used in the ceremony] of a woman suspected of adultery.

T.B. Maschat Hullin 88b

This selection tells us that because Abraham Avinu’s sublime uttering: “I am but dust and ashes” when he pleaded with G-d on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18: 28-32), G-d gave us the Mitzvot of the ashes (of the Red Heifer) and dust (from the ceremony of the Bitter waters during the trial of the wife suspected of adultery), which will cleans us of our sins.

At issue here is the determination of the great question: “ WHO AM I?” Abraham in a moment of sobering introspection realizes his own death, while pleading to spare the death sentence passed against the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrha. He could have asked G-d instead to spare him, and grant him exemption from “Dust and Ashes. Yet he chose to set aside his own mortality and pleads on behalf of those condemned.” This act of Abraham, thinking of the welfare of others while setting aside one’s own self centered thoughts, elevates the whole of humanity to a higher level. The Guemara tells us that G-d rewarded humanity for Abraham’s act by giving us these two additional Mitzvot from ashes and dust, the two same two elements coming back as a reward that made Abraham’s children worthy of receiving those extra Mitzvot.

From the ashes and the dust from which we have been born, and with all the human weaknesses that plague us as humans, G-d has given us the tools of purity of the self and holiness in our relationship with each other.

Some notes on the history and the customs of Tisha B’Av.

In 66 CE the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire. Four years later, in 70 CE, Roman legions under Titus reconquered and subsequently destroyed much of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. The arch of Titus, located in Rome and built to commemorate Titus’s victory in Judea, depicts Roman soldiers carrying off the Menorah from the Temple. Jerusalem itself was razed by the Emperor Hadrian at the end of the Bar Kochba Rebellion in 135 CE.

On Motzei Shabbat this weekend starts the observation of Tisha b’Av. It is a somber time of remembrance, when both our Holy Temples were destroyed, and exile, persecution and spiritual darkness began.

Yet in history Tisha B’Av was a festive time during the period of the Second Commonwealth (the period preceding the destruction of the Second Temple).  During this time, the four fast days that commemorate the destruction of the first Bet haMikdash were celebrated as holidays, and the people would eat, drink, and rejoice even on The Ninth of Av itself.

Since the year 70 CE observant Jews fast, and refrain from social amenities such as bathing, putting on perfumes or scents, wearing leather shoes, and from sexual intercourse. It is customary to sit on the floor or on a low seat until after mid-day on the day of Tisha B’Av. You may have noted that these traditions are similar to the ones observed during the week of shiva’ah (mourning). While the study of Torah is prohibited (since studying Torah brings joy), studying the Talmudic tractate Moed Kattan (that deals with the laws of mourning and excommunication), the Book of Job and the Midrash to Megillat Eichah is permitted.

As you recall at Purim there is a public reading of Megillat Esther form a scroll. At Tisha B’Av Megillat Eicha (Lamentations), composed by the prophet Yermiahu (Jeremiah) is also read publicly, but not from a scroll. Our Soferim (scribes) did not customarily write this Megillah, as an expression of the yearning and great anticipation of the time when the Ninth of Av shall be transformed into a day of rejoicing and happiness. Hence, because of the shortage of parchment scrolls, it became customary to read Eichah from a printed book.

The atmosphere at the Synagogue is somber and solemn on erev Tisha B’Av. Only a single light is lit at the pulpit of the synagogue. In my Sephardi Synagogue in Montreal we extinguished all lights in the synagogue and we lit one small lamp. The chazzan would then announce the number of years that have passed since the destruction of the Beit haMikdash.

Observation of Tisha B’Av starts this Saturday evening at 10 pm. Morning prayers start at 9 am, followed by Minchah at about 5:45 pm. For those who wish to observe the fast, it starts at 8:43 pm on Saturday evening and fast ends at 9:15 pm.

I have attached a short piece about the history and traditions about Tisah B’Av you may want to read.

Here is a custom that may be interesting to you. It is a Tish B’Av tradition that in the afternoon –  a little after rising from avelut that the women [or men] clean the house in preparation for the arrival of mashiach. Sages have mentioned that the afternoon of Tisha B’Av is one of the times that the mashiach will arrive. Therefore, we prepare for his arrival by cleaning the house, just like we would for [a long overdue] guest


Roger writes:

A bedrock matter for discussion, since the formation of the State of Israel, is whether or quite how this Festival should be celebrated today. Differences of opinion sweep the Jewish spectrum, from Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist. Does fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the loss of sovereignty ignore the realty of the founding of the modern State of Israel? This can be a very deep and exercising question, whichever side you come down on; and so one on which discussion should be encouraged in a diverse community, rather than a schedule presented as a fait accompli.

For myself, I generally favour maintaining the fast and Festival. But the giving of reasons is crucial here — and being prepared to see them overturned in debate. My reasons include: the Temple has still not been rebuilt; the time of the Messiah and redemption has still not arrived, and is still to be worked for; under a broad and metaphysical definition of “galut,” we all still live in a state of exile, in living in a hugely imperfect world, whether we live in Israel or Canada; and it is important to memorialize these past tragic events, not least, to minimize the chance of anything like them being repeated.

By the way, what’s your reading of Zechariah 8:19? [This is what the LORD Almighty says: “The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore love truth and peace.”]

It speaks of four fasts becoming days of rejoicing. Does this refer to actual practice in the time of the second Temple, or to coming messianic times? Different scholars give different readings, and the debate is still open. On the first reading, if Jews of the Second Commonwealth ceased to observe these fast days, should we?

For me, such questions, such debate, are the life-blood of living as a Jew.

In a questioning spirit, Roger

My reply:

I am delighted and deeply honored to have this debate, and sincerely hope it will continue to be ongoing. I think it is important to share this exchange with the community, and I have taken the liberty to share the essence of your arguments. Hopefully this will prompt others to challenge you and me and the Rabbis of old!

Indeed how should Tisha B’Av be observed, you ask?

Tisha B’Av historically is the actual divide between the Judaism of the Bible and the Judaism of the Rabbis. We will explore this in the weeks to come G-d willing.  But more than for its spiritual value Tisha B’Av also reminds us that we are still living in an unredeemed world.

The ancient Rabbis understood that Tisha B’Av was not only a Jewish-tribal lament, but bore in itself the seed of universal sorrow.

Tisha B’Av, our memorial for the burning of the two Temples, is also a time of reflection about the Burning in our own time: The burning of our earthly sanctuary with Global Warming, AIDS, Nuclear Proliferation, poverty, holocausts, and the list is endless. In our own earthquake era, when the macrocosmic earth itself is in the danger of our burning it, Tisha B’Av is truly the day of Universal Exile, what I call the Galut (exile) of Humanity.

Tisha B’Av may be especially filled with meaning personally AND individually. The somber ritual of Tisha B’Av is also for all the hearts burning with acts of personal and social self-destruction.

But G-d has not left us in utter despair. Starting with Shabbat Nachamu there are 7 Shabbatot of “Comforting”.

I like particularly Rabbi Shefa Gold’s teaching about Shabbat Nachamu. Nachamu is the deep place of comfort that God offers and we seek (see the Isaiah chapter 40 haftarah). “It is comfort so deep that we can live with the pain and discomfort — not live with other people’s pain as if it needed no healing, but live with the discomfort we bring into our own lives if we seek to make healing happen.”

The intense challenge of the Prophetic warning passage from Isaiah chapter 1, “Hazon,” (Vision) leave one with a quivering voice within that screams in despair: “Where then do we find solid footing for our lives?”

The Haftarah from Isaiah chapter 40, “Nachamu,” (Comfort), provides an answer: “The ground beneath our feet is G-d, Hashem, the deeply mysterious design embodied in the cycles of the grass beneath our feet, the cycles of the galaxies above, and the cycles of corruption and cleansing that is even in G-d’s holy city of Jerusalem.”

We can stand on the place of high perspective, says Isaiah’s reading, and see what it means for the hills to be made low and the valleys high, what it means for great empires to fall and the humiliated to arise.

This is the meaning of Tisha B’Av. Self-reflection and discovery is as personal as how each finds the end of the path on this journey of self-discovery. On this day of universal sorrow the rituals of Tisha B’Av only point the way.


The end of Tisha B’Av is drawing to a close. But G-d does not allow this

day of Remembrance to leaves us without the promise of consolation and

the beginning of the sprouting of Redemption. In the Haftarah we read

this afternoon at Mincha the prophet Isaiah says:

This is what the LORD says:

“Maintain justice

and do what is right,

for my salvation is close at hand

and my righteousness will soon be revealed.

I would like to share with you my thoughts I had last night. We were

alone, Scott and I in the sanctuary of our synagogue, at 10 O’clock.

Only one light was on. Scott began to intone the mournful verses of

Eichah (Lamentations).

In this lugubrious setting I thought of the Parasha we read yesterday

morning, Shabbat Hazon. Parasha Devarim mentions that before joining the

other 11 spies sent by Moses to report on the Land, Caleb took a special

trip to Meorat Ha’Machpelah-the burial place of our Patriarchs and

Matriarchs in Hebron before embarking upon his scouting mission.

There is a powerful message in Caleb’s side trip, relating to observing

Tisha B’av as it has been for centuries – a day of national mourning: we

must return to our places of origin as Caleb did,- our biblical

values-to appreciate the commitment it will take to making the

sacrifices necessary to transform our own torn community, our own abused

world into a place dedicated to righteousness, justice and peace.

Our minds, hearts and souls will always, always be linked to Hebron and

Jerusalem, symbols of our destiny and the sources of our inspirations.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept

when we remembered Zion.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

may my right hand forget its skill,

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

if I do not remember you,

if I do not consider Jerusalem

my highest joy.”

Psalm 107


17 Tamuz & Pinchas

Haftarah to Pinchas and 17 Tammuz

by Jacques Abourbih

Today is a dark day in the history of our people. Today nearly three thousand years ago Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces breached the walls of Jerusalem after many months of siege. Eighteen years later Beit Hamikdash, Solomon’s temple was destroyed 410 years after it was built.

This day is the beginning of the Three Weeks, an annual period of mourning over the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem, culminating with Tisha B’Av.

It is a day of mourning and fasting. Simchas should be toned down in remembrance of this national tragedy, which after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus marked the beginning of long night of the Diaspora.

Most years, unlike this year, this Parasha follows the 17 of Tammuz. Yesterday at the Synagogue Scott and I were discussing the choice of the Haftarah when Parashah Pinhas precedes the fast of17 Tammuz. It is taken from I Kings 18:46-19:21. Scott was questioning why the particular relevance of this passage to the Torah reading when Parasha Pinchas precedes the fast of 17 of Tammuz.

As you recall the Haftarah usually has a thematic link to the Torah reading. In Parasha Pinchas we are told about Pinchas who acted courageously and zealously to stop an act of immorality from being performed publicly by Zimri with a Midianite princess. The Parshah concludes with a detailed list of the sacrificial offerings for all the major holidays. This ritual has been interrupted for over 2 000 years since the destruction of the Second temple in CE 70.

Likewise the Haftarah opens with the prophet Elijah challenging the worshippers of Ba’al, the cult instituted by Jezebel. Elijah does so by staging one of the most formidable public demonstrations. Elijah withdraws to Mount Horeb to escape the wrath of Jezebel. There, he witnesses the power of g-d who rents mountains with a strong wind, and earthquake, and fire. “But the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)

The message that God reveals to Elijah on Mount Sinai is that the big productions are not enough to educate people in the covenant.

Elijah had to learn a lesson: Patience and a commitment to educate the people over a long period of time is necessary to inculcate covenantal values. A more profound and personal relationship with God must be developed. The people would have to learn to listen to the still small voice of God amidst the noise of human life.


1 No one knows for certain the origins of reading the haftarah, but several theories have been put forth. The most common explanation, accepted by some traditional Jewish authorities is that in 168 B.C., when the Jews were under the rule of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, they were forbidden from reading the Torah and made do with a substitute. When they were again able to read the Chumasheh TorahPentateuch they kept reading the haftarah as well.

An alternative explanation, offered by Rabbis Reuven Margolies and Samson Raphael Hirsch, is that the haftarah reading was instituted to fight the influence of those sects in Judaism that viewed the Jewish Bible as consisting only of the Pentateuch.

But all offered explanations for the origin of reading the haftarah have unanswered difficulties.

Certainly the haftarah was read — perhaps not obligatorily or in all communities — as far back as circa A.D. 70: The Talmud mentions that a haftarah was read in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who lived at that time.

Lag BaOmer

by Jacques Abourbih

The Talmud relates that in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva “because they did not act respectfully towards each other”; these weeks are therefore observed as a period of mourning with various joyous activities proscribed by law and custom; (for instance weddings re not celebrated). On Lag BaOmer the dying ceased. Thus Lag BaOmer also carries the theme of Ahavat Yisrael, the imperative to love and respect one’s fellow. This is the Prime Directive of Rabbi Akiva, (to borrow a term from Star Trek).

Lag BaOmer also commemorates the passing of rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (c. 100-160 CE), the Mishnaic sage and mystic, also a student of Rabbi Akiba After he provoked the wrath of the Roman authorities, he, together with his son Eleazar, hid in a cave for thirteen years. During that time it is said that they composed the Zohar, one of the fundamental work of Kabbalah, which many regard as the inner soul of the Torah that chart the sublime expanses of the divine reality, the processes of Creation, G-d’s relationship to our existence and the inner recesses of the human soul.

The legend of Rip van Winkle is likely modeled after that of R. Shimon. It is reputed that before R. Shimon entered the cave he saw a man planting a Carob tree. R. Shimon remarked to him that he would not live long enough to see the fruits of that tree. The man agreed, but said he was planting the tree for his children and grand children.

After emerging from his cave R. Shimon saw a man resting under that carob tree from his own labor of planting trees. R. Shimon inquired about the farmer who had planted the carob tree. The reply was that no one remembers who planted it, and the farmer in question had passed away along while ago. Whether R. Shimon asked himself “how long have I been asleep”, like Rip Van Winkle did, is conjectural.

The study of Torah has often become equated to that of planting a tree.